I was sitting next to a good friend at a sporting event. Suddenly, as is sometimes the case, the referee made a terrible call, and the fans began to loudly boo him. Within a moment the drone of boos turned into a chant: “Ref, you suck!” A chorus of about 20,000 fans sang the anthem and ode of the ref’s incompetence. I am ashamed to admit that I would usually join in. Nothing gets me out of my introverted shell more than cheering for my sports team or raging against its rivals… or its incompetent officials.
This time was a little different. I was attending the game not just with a friend, but I was a pastor attending with a parishioner. Instead of hastily joining the jeers, I paused and thought about those words – “Ref, you suck!”
I couldn’t in good conscience say them. How could I, as a follower of Jesus, belittle a person’s existence based on one mistake? How would I feel if I made a mistake at work and the response was a public shaming from my coworkers. “Justin, you suck?” What if I gave a misspoke a reference during a sermon and all of the sudden the congregation began to boo and hiss and yell profanity like, “That’s bull…”
I suddenly felt embarrassed. It was like watching a movie with my kids when one of the characters blurts out a foul word. Or like the times I watched the Superbowl with my church, and one of those GoDaddy commercials with the busty women taking off her clothes plasters the screen. Do I say something? Do I just look away and pretend it’s not happening? Do I shake my head and offer some sort of morality noise like, “Tsk, tsk?” I wanted to escape. It wasn’t like a television. I couldn’t just mute or turn off 20,000 people.
That night in the arena awoke my heart to an important truth. Sports is neither everything nor some magical escape from reality. It isn’t like some vortex where I can shed off my identity as a Believer. It isn’t like Jesus is going to say to me, “Let’s talk about your use of calling people ‘a stupid scumbag.’ The time you said it about your neighbor isn’t okay. But the other time when you were calling the opposing player or referee the name, because you were using it in a sporting reference, that’s entirely acceptable.” Yeah, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work that way.
This issue isn’t really about sports either. There’s something underlining – an everyday, all-encompassing life truth, and it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. The question is what does it mean to give the Kingdom of Heaven supremacy in my life… in all areas of my life?
A couple of months ago, I felt like the Lord asked me to step out of ministry leadership for a season. I had spent twelve years in bi-vocational pastoral ministry. Even though I worked a full-time job while pastoring “part-time,” being on staff made it easy to see that ministry was my priority. I often referred to my outside-of-church job as my tentmaking work (a reference to the Apostle Paul who made tents as a means to support himself). Now that I’m not longer on staff at a church, I feel like I’m venturing into unchartered waters. What does it mean to make the Kingdom of Heaven a priority?
Someone recently asked me if I had figured out why God had called me to give it up and move to a new location. I told him, “I see little reasons here and there, but I’m not sure I can yet point to an ah-ha moment.” Perhaps this is it. Perhaps the reason is that God wants me to learn what it means to give the Kingdom of Heaven supremacy in my life, beyond merely saying, “I’m paid for ministry.”
The past month or so, I’ve been really thinking about what it means to live in this world yet be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the change in what I do and where I live has made me chew on that question like never before.
Everything about our world vies for supremacy. Every advertisement aims at telling us that a product isn’t a means but an end. That car, for example, it isn’t just about getting you from point a to point z. We’re told that the car in someway defines you.
That job – it isn’t just something you do to make money. We spend most of our days at work, furthering the revenue and the mission of our employer. It’s so easy to treat our job as the end rather than a means to an end. Think about how when we meet someone, one of the first things we ask is, “What do you do?” It can easily define us. When it comes to our occupations, the temptation to act differently, to use different words that make us fit in the workplace, to shed off our Christian identity and compartmentalize is completely pervasive.
For the past few years I’ve been mulling over the pledge of allegiance. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…” Wait, what does that mean? I grew up singing patriotic songs in church on the 4th of July, not just hymns of the republic but hymns to the republic. “For God and country” is a popular mantra touted by those who believe that being faithful unto death to the American republic is synonymous with being a good Christian. Is that true? Is my Christian role not just to respect the government but to maintain, protect, and promote a secular society? To whom or what should I be pledging allegiance? And can I in good conscience pledge allegiance to something that preaches its separation from God as though it were the 11th commandment?
These questions are difficult. So, I’ve started asking this question in my inner dialogue: “How does this activity, possession, affiliation, etc. further the Kingdom of Heaven in my life?” As soon as I ask the question, I’m immediately met with conviction.
I can see a lot of decisions I’ve made – purchases, pursuits, priorities that do not seem to speak of the supremacy of my heavenly citizenship. They don’t necessarily contradict my calling as a Christian, but they weren’t pursued with an attitude to make the Kingdom of Heaven supreme in my life.
Take my sunglasses for instance. I recently spent a lot of money on a nice pair of shades. It doesn’t make me a bad Christian. But in debating whether to purchase them (I usually buy cheap $15 glasses), I asked myself a lot of questions – “Is it worth the money? Will these last? Am I being wise with my money? Does it make me look good?” The question I didn’t ask is, “Is this a priority in the Kingdom of Heaven?”
I don’t know if there’s even an answer to that question? I’m sure there are a lot of people who would contend that God doesn’t care about what kind of sunglasses I buy. Does God care about what car or house I buy? And if the answer is “yes,” then is there some monetary threshold that demands God’s attention? Is it like that workplace policy that any expenditure over $1000 must get the business department’s approval?
I see a lot of people walking around treating God like He’s a rubber stamp. “God bless you, God bless me, God bless America.” What does that mean? How can we expect God’s blessing if our motivation is to pursue something outside of His will and Kingdom? I see a lot of disturbing trends going on in the mainstream Christian culture where the Kingdom of Heaven is being defined by the kingdoms of this world, where the standard for what is pure, right, and holy is being driven by what our society desires, our legislation decides, and our Supreme Court upholds. Which is more supreme – the court of public opinion, America’s courts, or God’s court inside the Kingdom of Heaven? We cannot give the Kingdom of Heaven supremacy by making it subservient to other kingdoms, even if those other kingdoms are not necessarily in conflict with God’s Kingdom.
How often do we define our Christian calling in light of the American dream? In the midst of some uncomfortable changes, a friend once pointed out how contrarian the American dream and its pursuit of stability is to what we see in Scripture. Find that perfect job, that perfect home, save money, retire, stay where you are, don’t rock the boat, and take minimal risks. Those aren’t necessarily evils in and of themselves, but it is a whole motivation and lifestyle that is biblically unsupportable. The American dream pales in comparison to psalmist’s plea: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked” (Psalms 84:10).
The biggest temptation in my life (and perhaps this is the biggest temptation in every Christian’s life) is to forget that we are pilgrims and tentmakers. This isn’t our home, and that is a difficult reality to remember. We are born with our earthly citizenship before we choose to embrace our more important celestial one. No wonder it’s such a tough mentality to change. The bottom line is our job isn’t the end. Our homes are not the end. Our lives here, and what we fill them with are not the end. We are merely passing through, building tents to further our true mission as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.
My time to work is about to begin. My wife and children will return home later today, and I will need to take on family responsibilities. Soon football season will kickoff. God help me to treat these facets of life as a citizen of Heaven. Help me to prioritize and pursue the supremacy of your Kingdom before and above all. Your Kingdom come… Your will be done… on earth as it is in Heaven.